Protecting the homeland and the hometown: First responders look to N-DEx


By Chief Mark A. Marshall, Smithfield (VA) PD
Vice President, International Association of Chiefs of Police

Sponsored by Cisco Systems

In the last article we discussed the concept of the National Data Exchange, also known as N-DEx. Information sharing has become the new proactive strategy for law enforcement. Law enforcement recognizes the power of information and getting it into the hands of first responders.

Of course, since September 11th, law enforcement has taken on a central role in homeland security and preventing the next terrorist attack. But our primary job is to ensure that are communities are safe. Local and state law enforcement are the “boots on the ground." We are the primary collectors of information in our respective communities and regions. Putting it all together—or, to use the much-used phrase of “connecting the dots”— is the challenge, yet it's absolutely necessary in today’s environment.

If our homeland is to be secured, then our hometowns must be safe. The 18,000 law enforcement agencies across this country are data rich. Tying it all together to increase our crime-fighting capabilities and satisfy the new imperative for homeland security locally, regionally, and nationally is a priority. N-DEx has the potential to accomplish this essential mission.

What are the primary benefits of N-DEx?

While N-DEx is scaled nationally by definition, we anticipate that the system’s greatest benefits will be realized regionally.  Existing regional information sharing projects have proven the value of exchanging law enforcement data.  N-DEx can help us all plug into that benefit in two ways:

  1. In its concept, planning and design, N-DEx emphasizes the importance of connecting to existing regional systems, for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that they already work and are relevant to the day to day operations of law enforcement agencies. Having these systems attached to a single point of interface is the most simple way to enhance the information capabilities of all participants. Streamlining a process makes sense to chiefs and sheriffs faced with constantly increasingly technology and resource complexities that usually equate to the need for more funding. These already built systems can now be connected to each other and to all the other agencies participating in N-DEx, retaining all of their current capabilities and obtaining significant additional capacity by linking to the expanded universe of data that will be present in N-DEx.
  2. N-DEx immediately presents a brand new facility for any group of agencies in the country to create a “virtual regional system”.  That is, the agencies in any geographic region can all connect to one other, simply by each linking to N-DEx.  This capability brings the proven value of regional law enforcement information sharing to every agency in the country. The standards, functions, services, and capabilities of each virtual system can be established by its user community. Investigators and officers should be the principal beneficiaries of this system for it to be optimally utilized. This capability will truly ensure that agencies get the information to those who need it the most.
  3. Widespread participation in N-DEx will channel the myriad information streams up to our federal partners and fusion centers. It is essential that they have access to this database and are able to utilize it’s capabilities to fulfill their mission imperatives, particularly as they relate to terrorism. The flow of information is not a one way tunnel with local and state agencies as the only contributors. The Department of Justice has committed its agencies and in particular the FBI to the sharing of their sensitive, unclassified records. The “cross-pollination” of information will benefit all participants. 

How does N-DEx fit in to the existing law enforcement information sharing landscape?

As stated in the Position Paper, numerous information sharing efforts are underway throughout the country, providing significant value to their respective participating agencies. Nationally, however, the void is obvious. Chiefs, sheriffs, and all law enforcement executives need to know that connection and participation will be part of a universal strategy. N-DEx provides us with the potential of that well-coordinated effort. 

These regional benefits will derive from the national N-DEx system located at the FBI CJIS Division.  CJIS has a solid history of providing these valuable coordination and correlation services.  Via the APB process, we are already partners with the CJIS Division in their other national systems, most notably:

  • National Crime Information Center (NCIC);
  • Interstate Identification Index (III);
  • Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS);
  • Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR and NIBRS);
  • National Sex Offender Registry, and others

N-DEx will join this family of systems as well as forming an integral part of the Department of Justice’s One DOJ effort to provide a unified point of access to all information in the DOJ systems. 

In the same tradition as the development of IAFIS, through collaborative efforts N-DEx will establish a set of standards and best practices that can be utilized for future procurements. Industry has been and will continue to be engaged in the ongoing development. Existing standards such as the GJXDM and the RMS standards adopted by the Law Enforcement Information Technology Standards Council (LEITSC) are being incorporated in the development effort. Successful completion of N-DEx as one of the national CJIS systems can showcase a clear set of standards on the national landscape.

What are the capabilities of N-DEx?

The N-DEx capabilities are built upon “under the hood” services that processes raw report data submitted from law enforcement agencies, and analyzes it for relational characteristics/similarities against other submitted data.

Specific functions that investigators can use utilize include:

  • Search
  • Subscription
  • Notification
  • Visualization
  • Analytical/Reporting
  • Collaboration

Search

The Search capability will be N-DEx’s most prominent user-accessible capability.  It will be designed to support the needs of a diverse user base with varied computer skill levels to locate, collate and present information from throughout the system. N-DEx users will have the capability to search for specific entities (people, places or things) by crime characteristics and key word searches, and to find records (e.g., incident/arrest reports).

Users will be able to define the criteria of each search string.  In addition, the N-DEx search capability will provide extensive support for searching based on business rules and user-based relevancy where the results are tuned to a user-defined business need. This capability will use filtering and ranking of results to mitigate the problem of users receiving overwhelming amounts of data. Users will be able to define the geography of the search whether by adjacent jurisdictions, regions, state(s) or the entire database.

Subscription

The subscription capability will allow law enforcement investigators to register a search for future information about entities and subjects of interest. As information continually flows into the system, the relevance of previous searches that originally yielded few or no returns may change. Users will be able to establish subscriptions regarding existing entities in the system so that they will receive notices of any updates or changes to status on those entities which occur because of later/future submissions.  Also, investigators will be able to register for notification of future events about entities, such as inquiries by other agencies. That will enable investigators to easily discover “who else is looking” for the same subjects or has interest in similar cases. This capability will provide a key foundation for supporting case de-confliction and will encourage case collaboration.

Notification

The notification capability will enable N-DEx to automatically deliver specific messages to specific users or groups of users. Under defined circumstances, N-DEx will generate notification/alert messages for delivery to a specific user, even if that user is not currently logged in to N-DEx. For example:

  • Data are sent to N-DEx which matches a subscription request previously registered by the user
  • The user is the point-of-contact (POC) on a record marked for Restricted Access, and another user’s search request matches data contained in the record
  • Automated processing will produce various messages based on correlations and applied business rules.  Notification/alert messages will have an associated priority. Users can configure the manner in which specific types and/or priorities of notification messages should be generated. A user or group of users may determine which notification/alert messages they or their agency wish to receive within guidelines set forth by policy. Possible means of delivering generated messages include:
    • Message displayed when user next logs into N-DEx
    • E-mail
    • Page or text message (SMS)
    • Message passed to user's local system (e.g., local RMS)
    • Instant messaging

Visualization

The Visualization capability will provide charting/graphing/mapping tools to make it easier to understand and use the “knowledge” behind the vast amount of information in the system and to display the complex relationships that result from correlation, search and report functions. These tools will provide both tabular and graphical representations of data to allow navigation through relationships, trends, and timelines of crimes and activities as the user sees fit.  These tools will also have the capability to overlay data on geographic maps with various views of the data.

Analytical/Reporting

The Analytical/Reporting capability gives administrators, analysts and investigators the ability to generate reports from N-DEx data for analysis, distribution and sharing. It will allow N-DEx to support law enforcement’s investigative reporting needs from a central platform. Through this capability, N-DEx will generate online reports including graphical displays of data for use in predictive modeling, reporting, tracking and trending of crime for operational purposes.  This tool is for investigative uses only, and will not be used for statistical crime reporting or publication. This tool could assist an investigator in identifying a “hot spot” of crime activity in a geographic region warranting further investigation. The investigator could then “drill down” into the underlying information forming the “hot spot” to determine the relationships among the entities involved in that information.

Collaboration

Some of the underlying, “deeper” investigative information developed by the law enforcement  community will exist outside of N-DEx (e.g., within the agencies’ case files or knowledge held by investigators) and not included when the agencies generate data for submission to N-Dex. In these instances, N-DEx will provide users performing a search or other query with contact information where they can pursue details about the incident. This capability will be particularly important in the early stages of N-DEx implementation when data will not be as rich as it will be in later stages. N-DEx collaboration capabilities will allow users to electronically locate others working on similar cases, to dynamically create investigative teams and to enable real-time collaboration and sharing of information, thereby leveraging the individual knowledge of police officers, analysts and investigators..

What if we cannot or do not want to share all data or cases in our RMS?

Various privacy and case sensitivity considerations present a significant challenge to N-DEx planning and development.  Presently, the following “Levels of Access” strategy is being considered to address these concerns using three tiers of accessibility.

  1. Full Access (Green) – If the owner of a data record (e.g., incident report, arrest report) has designated the record to be fully shared, then all N-DEx users with the appropriate access authority will have access to the full record and all data elements within the record.
  2. Pointer-Based Access (Yellow) – If the data owner decides that access to a specific record, or specific data elements within the record should be restricted except under certain circumstances, then the data owner can designate the record accordingly using pointer-based sharing. With pointer-based sharing, any user who gets a “hit” on, or attempts access to a record with this designation, will be provided with information on the designated record owner’s information (i.e. the Point of Contact for the record) only. This enables the data requestor to contact the record to inquire why the hit occurred and whether the underlying data is shareable. If shareable, N-DEx provides mechanisms so that the data owner can make that information accessible to a specific user or group of users as applicable.
  3. Restricted Access (Red) – There will be circumstances where a data record or a part of the record is so highly sensitive that the data owner completely restricts not only access to the record, but also any references to it, except perhaps to a selected user or user group.  The value of having that record in N-DEx is that the data owner can benefit from correlations made with other N-DEx records without compromising their sensitive information. With restricted access, any “hits” against the restricted record will be reported to the owner of the record, while the owner of the other record that it hit against, will have no knowledge of the correlation.  The owner of the Restricted record may then contact the inquiring agency, as appropriate.

This three-tiered strategy has the potential to provide the agencies with effective protected ownership of the record, but it may increase the cost of N-DEx participation, since existing Records Management Systems generally do not have the capability to segregate certain records or data elements as “yellow” or “red." The N-DEx development team has recommended that the vendor be required to provide a system capability which allows submitting agencies to create rules to be applied against their data to classify their data with criteria-based access level designations. This capability concept could reduce the cost of the “levels of access” approach, especially in the early stages of system implementation.

What is the timeline for N-DEx implementation?

Following are the Major Milestones as currently projected. This schedule, based on a calendar year, is preliminary and subject to change. For clarification, the number of users is the capability of the system to accommodate total number at the same time. For example, in 2008 it is anticipated that 50, 000 users could be utilizing the system at the same time. “Users” in this context is simultaneous system capacity.

Major Tasks

Target Date*

Prototype Data Submission -26 agencies/regions

Ongoing

Train the Trainer

February 2008

Training prior to system rollout – User Conference

March 2008

Increment 1 Rollout – 50,000 users

March 2008

Increment 2 Rollout – 100,000 users

February 2009

Increment 3 – 200,000 users

February 2010


A work in progress – Tasks still under construction

Funding

A national program of this magnitude entails significant start-up costs and a need for on-going funding. N-DEx establishes a resource that enhances the safety of all citizens: as such it logically deserves and requires federal funding. While sizeable commitments have been made by DOJ through the FBI, a full model of costs is still under development. There is no “one size fits all” template. Large metropolitan areas will have different costs then a small stand alone agency of 20 officers. IJIS and IIR have been contracted to develop the cost model. They will prepare a baseline that will aggregate the impact of integrating and transporting this data. Projection for completion of this model is the Spring of 2008.

As with NCIC, III, and IAFIS, the FBI has assumed all costs for the repository and corresponding analytical overlays. Getting to the repository remains problematic: the costs of connection to and exportation from N-DEx will require additional funding streams. Localities and states continue to see their respective revenue streams shrink while operational costs and priorities increase. Minimizing or better yet eliminating costs associated with N-DEx connectivity will be necessary to encourage a meaningful level of program participation. The system is being designed to minimize costs to local agencies by establishing standards and best practices that should be repeatable from agency to agency. Industry is involved in the discussions to end\sure that future software systems are N-DEx compatible. But widespread participation will mean that localities will bear no or minimal costs. In the final analysis, A strategy, a mission, and a public safety mandate  – require a National Solution. FBI and DOJ executives have pledged to work on national funding strategies which will support N-DEx participation by law enforcement agencies. All of us in the law enforcement community must take up this issue legislatively and push for the funding of local and state agencies. Otherwise the data repository will be empty.

Privacy

Ensuring privacy compliance is essential but complex, since there are thousands of affected law enforcement jurisdictions, each with applicable privacy laws, policies and information gathering protocols.  The maintenance and exchange of shareable information must comply with all applicable privacy standards and legal requirements. Agencies must ensure and be assured that contributing information does not violate their standards, jeopardize their personnel or adversely impact their missions.

A portion of the N-DEx privacy solution involves the successful implementation of features such as the levels of sensitivity described earlier. The elimination of intelligence data from N-DEx also removes some significant privacy issues.  Early discussions have focused on the fact that information destined for N-DEx already exists in local systems, and that N-DEx will actually provide a more formalized means for this data to be shared, with clear dissemination audit trails.

Ultimately, local voluntary participation is central to the success of N-DEx, and that participation hinges upon identifying and implementing appropriate privacy and funding solutions.  All principals in the N-DEx project are working toward these goals.

Conclusion

The N-DEx project gives us the opportunity to create a nationally coordinated law enforcement information sharing system to fill a critical gap in our ability to provide public safety and homeland security services in the post-9/11 world. DOJ and the FBI understand that a “bottom – up engineering” model is required to pursue this worthy goal. We the stakeholders – the users - must be equal partners throughout the continued development and implementation of this program. FBI executives and the N-DEx Project Management Office have committed to this partnership. This is not a question about technology. The technology is already here: it is incorporated and used continuously in our daily lives. Instead it is a matter of commitment, and a realization that all of us with public safety – homeland security responsibility have to ensure that we are full participants in the mission. Preventing and solving crime in our respective communities can be achieved with better information sharing. Simultaneously, pushing that one piece of information that thwarts the next terrorist attack is an obligation we all have.

About the author

Chief Mark A. Marshall has been Chief of Police in Smithfield, Virginia for over 15 years. He is also the Chairman for the LInX regional information-sharing project, as well as Vice-President for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). He has oversight of all the technology committees as part of his duties for IACP.

Contact Mark Marshall

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